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Senior Open organizers offer a preview

ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Matt Sawicki, director of USGA Championships, left, listens to Gene Sauers, the 2016 U.S. Senior Open Champion, answer a question during the Senior Open Media Day at the Salem Country Club.

By STEVE KRAUSE

PEABODY — The folks who are running the U.S. Senior Open, which will be held June 29-July 2 at Salem Country Club, gave a little history lesson Monday and provided a tip or two on how to play the course during Championship Preview Day.

Next month, as was the case in 2001, the last time the open was played at Salem, the front and back nine will be flipped. The first tee is the actual 10th hole, and the ninth becomes the 18th.

According to William H. Sheehan III, who is chairman of the tournament, the idea to flip the two sectors came about when the U.S. Women’s Open came to the club in 1984.

“We noticed that the ninth green had a natural amphitheater,” said Sheehan. “It was a perfect spot to put bleachers in there.”

Sheehan said the Donald Ross-designed golf course is a source of pride within the club and “we want to share this golf course with as many people as we can.

“We feel we are all blessed to be members here.”

On hand Monday was last year’s champion, Gene Sauers, who won the tournament in Columbus, Ohio. Sauers had to wait an extra day to sink his par putt on the final hole to pull out the tournament by one stroke over Miguel Angel Jimenez and Billy Mayfair because wretched weather chased the golfers on the final day — something organizers were quick to point out Monday in light of the torrential rain that hit the area for much of Sunday.

Sauers’ story last year is the same as Bruce Fleicher’s was in 2001. As Sheehan noted, Sauers’ pair was the third-to-the-last group in, and he had to wait for two groups to finish up before he could claim victory. In 2001, Fleicher was also third from the last, and he also had to wait for two groups to play through before his victory was confirmed.

The fact that Sauers is even golfing is somewhat miraculous. After being misdiagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and being given so much medication “that I was literally burning from the inside out,” he went to Duke University Hospital where his condition — Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a serious skin condition — was correctly diagnosed. He was given a 25 percent chance of surviving.

But he did, and was back on the tour after a 7-year absence in 2012, and prior to the Masters Tournament, he received the Ben Hogan Award, which is given to golfers who continued to be active despite serious illness or physical issues.

“Receiving it was awesome,” said Sauers.

As was winning a national championship, he said.

“Seeing my name on that cup is like (Ray Bourque) seeing his name on the Stanley Cup,” said Sauers, who was also a huge fan of Larry Bird.

Bourque, who was present Monday, is the honorary chairman of the event.

“After listening to what you went through,” said Bourque, a hockey hall of Famer, to Sauers, “I’m convinced you could have played hockey.”

Planning for the tournament began in 2008 when members of the club decided they’d like to host the event again.

Said Matt Sawicki, director of United States Golf Association championships, New England will be a popular venue for the sport in the coming years, culminating in the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline.

As Salem gets ready to host the tournament, 1,500 volunteers have been recruited to help, Sawicki said. He also said this year’s field is loaded, and includes Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Tom Watson.

Tournament director Ben Kimball, alluding to how fast the greens can be in Ross-designed golf courses, had a bit of advice for contestants next month.

Donald Ross greens can repel quite a bit,” he said. “Keep the ball below the hole as much as possible.”

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